(First published on May 23, 2017)
“We cannot be a kind culture until we admit and acknowledge and try to fix this, try to heal it, as a society.” — Glen Venezio
There is an intriguing cat phenomenon happening in San Juan, Puerto Rico. And it’s all due to Glen Venezio. Glen has fed and cared for over 250 cats, and some dogs, in his neighborhood in San Juan. Originally from the East Coast of the United States, Glen has been living in Puerto Rico since 2006. His dedication to caring for cats might be unbelievable to some, but as any “caregiver” knows, you do it, it’s rough, but you keep doing it, because you know it’s the right thing to do. But Glen’s journey has been for over 10 years, out on the streets, mostly solo, with big expenses and minimal donations. How he does that and continues to do it is unexplainable as he’s not just caring for one but rather many cats, and night after night. A nightly solo undertaking that costs him well over $100 a day.
He says, “If I died today, the cats would still be standing right here.”
Glen speaks of his local police fondly. He once overheard a police dispatcher’s conversation referring to him as, “Hombre de los gatos” (or “the catman”). “I’ve needed them literally hundreds of times in the past 10 years.” He knows the police by name. And over the years, he has proven to be more than a “catman.” There is a special unit that does animal cruelty cases, and Glen considers those officers his friends. He has gone out on investigations and has helped them often.
There are hundreds of thousands of dogs and cats on the streets and beaches of the island. No census has ever been done but educated guesses indicate there are about 200,000 dogs in the streets and maybe 400,000 to 500,000 cats.
While Puerto Rico has a presence as a U.S. territory, it is roughly the size of the state of Connecticut, with a terrain of about 100 miles long by 35 miles wide. Glen lives in a middle to upper class neighborhood in San Juan. Although life can be good, there are negative factors in the area that many people feel they can’t control.
When people see the cats in the streets they want someone to blame. It’s a case of guilt by association. They see Glen with the cats and assume it’s his fault.
And since some animal rescue organizations do exist, people assume there shouldn’t even be a problem. However, animal rescue options are new and few, as is the notion of cats as companion animals.
Most of the rescue workers are concerned with dogs and are from elsewhere, like Glen, but more and more he sees more locals taking on the task. Nowadays, there are more Puerto Rican rescuers, mostly young women in their early 20s, but the group is growing.
When Glen first arrived in the area, there was an older woman feeding and caring for the cats. That was more accepted because she fit the classic stereotype for people, a “cat lady.”
But when Glen stepped into the role, it was a bit jarring for people, at first, and to some extent, still. He explained the dilemma, “But to see, first of all a man. And then second of all, to see an American man, someone from the states. It’s just so, so strange to them.” Glen adds that they wonder, “What does he get out of that?” He says, “It’s a total source for confusion and rage.”
He is very exposed to the street life as are others who do work with animals in the streets. While some appreciate what is being done, others often misunderstand the situation.
He continues, “I’ve learned to fight for the cats. I’ve learned if I see cruelty I will bring the police.”
Often having to defend himself, Glen says, “I’m doing what you’re supposed to do. You see someone hurting an animal. What am I doing? I’m doing what you’re supposed to do. We have very strong animal laws here.”
Glen can be a target as well as the cats, as they are both very approachable. People frustrated with things they see in the streets, in general, might take that vulnerability as an opening and use it to take some level of control back.
His boldness to feed the cats is not always welcomed. He goes where the cats are, in the streets, and so he is faced with a variety of reactions, some good and some not.
He knows his neighbors well. Even so, some battles with locals are long and ongoing, but over time Glen has learned what his rights are, and he knows the laws. He states the laws in Puerto Rico are well above those in some of the U.S. states.
According to the local laws, the sidewalk is totally public. No one can bar him from feeding a cat on the sidewalk.
One complaint he has faced is, “Why do you throw cat food on the ground?” He quickly replies that they can’t have feeding stations as the food could be poisoned or the feeding bowls destroyed. Feeding stations within the city streets would be viewed as obstructions. Glen did once use plates to put the cat food out, but after his plates were tossed on his doorstep one night, the police advised him to throw it on the ground. Whatever food the cats don’t finish that night, pigeons will eat in the morning. So nature takes care of itself.
Some people suggest asking animal control to round up the cats and put them to sleep. While others might say to take them to a shelter. However, adoption is still being introduced. Although shelters exist, many rescue animals are shipped to the states in the U.S. It’s hard to find people to adopt even dogs, the preferred home companion. So the chances for a cat to be adopted are very low.
The idea to just leave them be has already been done for years. The cats continue to breed and the population just grows. Spay and neuter is a new practice as well. There are beliefs that it’s not natural, or it’s too expensive, or others just don’t care enough.
I asked Glen, what makes him different. Why does he care so much about cats?
Just seeing them. When I first lived here you would see animals crying. You see cats crying under cars. They look starving. They look ill some of them. You see people doing cruelty to them. Throwing rocks at them. Chasing them. So I just started feeding them because I knew it was the right thing to do. They don’t have a fresh source of water. This is a tropical climate. It’s very hot year round.
What keeps Glen going after all these years and doing it solo? He says, “Because you become attached to the actual individual cats really. And because I just couldn’t imagine…most of them depend on me. For many of them I’m their only source of food in a 24-hour period.”
He adds that there are now people who are also feeding a few of them within a few blocks. Still for many cats, Glen’s efforts are their only source for food.
I’m one of the few humans that has any interest in them in this area, and shows them any tenderness or affection or anything. That’s the main motivation that I keep doing it. I wouldn’t want to see them revert to a state of hunger… and if I wasn’t doing this their quality of life would rapidly drop very low. I don’t know what they would do. They would probably be eating insects or lizards or jumping into garbage cans looking for food that people have thrown away. Many of them are very healthy because they’re well fed…I don’t want to see them suffer and I’ll keep going as long as I can.
I asked Glen what would help him the most. He said, “It would be wonderful to have people to help me and people who could take over on a night when I’m tired or don’t feel well. It might be nice to have help.”
On finances, he says, “Money helps all the time because it’s a huge burden that I cannot afford. The food alone is over $70 a night because I’m dealing with about 250 cats. I always need money to spay and neuter. The cheapest spay and neuter operation you could get in Puerto Rico might be $40 to $50. That’s rock bottom. That’s one cat. So imagine, I’m dealing with many cats. So there’s always more and more to spay and neuter.”
Glen listed a variety of things that can begin to help the situation:
• Better cultural awareness and education to be kinder to animals
• Less fear of pressing charges when abuse is found
• Everyone learning how to use the good laws they have
• Animal cases treated with significance by the courts
• Stop animal abandonment, and the assumption that someone will else will feed them
• Break the cycle of abuse — if someone hurts an animal the statistics of them hurting a human are high
• There is animal cruelty all over the world, but Glen has seen it up-close on his own route in San Juan. And he has been personally involved with the police on many cases.
He affirmed, “We cannot be a kind culture until we admit and acknowledge and try to fix this, try to heal it, as a society.”
The thought of change can be overwhelming, especially if it seems like a minor issue in the scheme of a person’s life. But a change in awareness begins with just a thought. Glen reminds people that,
Even if they are just afraid of the consequences, that’s not enough of an awareness. The awareness shouldn’t be that you don’t hurt an animal just because you might go to jail. You don’t hurt an animal because you know that morally and ethically that it’s not, it’s not the right thing to do.
Young children are learning that it’s not right…So I hope that somehow I’m a catalyst. I’m one little voice in a sea of other people dealing with animals on this island…But they will get there.
I’ve done way beyond my part. I’ve done more than one person could do or would ever want to do.
Glen says there are times when he wishes he could walk away,
“…but to walk away I wouldn’t be able to live here. I would have to totally leave the island because there would be no way…once you open your eyes here you can’t close them again. No matter where you live in this island you’re going to see animals in need. You’re going to see dogs or cats on the beach, on the street that are suffering, that are starving, that are hurt, that are abused, that are abandoned. You can’t close your eyes again…”
Despite all the obstacles he faces, Glen concludes, “I continue because I can’t see another way.”
There are ways to help Glen and his efforts:
• Financial donations via Paypal.
• Gift cards can be purchased from Petsmart or Walmart where he buys the cat food
• Veterinary costs can be donated toward more spaying and neutering of the street cats
• If you want to see Glen on his nightly feeding route, check out his video, “Puerto Rico’s Catman, Glen Venezio.”
If you want to connect with Glen, you can friend him on Facebook.
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Note: In 2016/17 I was minding my own business writing about cats, art and culture. The goal was to uplift the image of cats so they would be treated better. But the universe played a funny trick on me, and some weird stuff threw my life into a tizzy as if to say, “Do you really want to know what it’s like to be a cat?” Now that I’m back on all “twos”, I wanted to post an article from that time.